Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.  

Alienation as a Form of Self-Protection

Throughout the novel, Holden seems to be excluded from and victimized by the world around him. As he says to Mr. Spencer, he feels trapped on “the other side” of life, and he continually attempts to find his way in a world in which he feels he doesn’t belong. As the novel progresses, we begin to perceive that Holden’s alienation is his way of protecting himself. Just as he wears his hunting hat (see “Symbols,” below) to advertise his uniqueness, he uses his isolation as proof that he is better than everyone else around him and therefore above interacting with them. The truth is that interactions with other people usually confuse and overwhelm him, and his cynical sense of superiority serves as a type of self-protection. Thus, Holden’s alienation is the source of what little stability he has in his life.

As readers, we can see that Holden’s alienation is the cause of most of his pain. He never addresses his own emotions directly, nor does he attempt to discover the source of his troubles. He desperately needs human contact and love, but his protective wall of bitterness prevents him from looking for such interaction. Alienation is both the source of Holden’s strength and the source of his problems. For example, his loneliness propels him into his date with Sally Hayes, but his need for isolation causes him to insult her and drive her away. Similarly, he longs for the meaningful connection he once had with Jane Gallagher, but he is too frightened to make any real effort to contact her. He depends upon his alienation, but it destroys him.

The Painfulness of Growing Up

According to most analyses, The Catcher in the Rye is a bildungsroman, a novel about a young character’s growth into maturity. While it is appropriate to discuss the novel in such terms, Holden Caulfield is an unusual protagonist for a bildungsroman because his central goal is to resist the process of maturity itself. As his thoughts about the Museum of Natural History demonstrate, Holden fears change and is overwhelmed by complexity. He wants everything to be easily understandable and eternally fixed, like the statues of Eskimos and Indians in the museum. He is frightened because he is guilty of the sins he criticizes in others, and because he can’t understand everything around him. But he refuses to acknowledge this fear, expressing it only in a few instances—for example, when he talks about sex and admits that “[s]ex is something I just don’t understand. I swear to God I don’t” (Chapter 9).

Instead of acknowledging that adulthood scares and mystifies him, Holden invents a fantasy that adulthood is a world of superficiality and hypocrisy (“phoniness”), while childhood is a world of innocence, curiosity, and honesty. Nothing reveals his image of these two worlds better than his fantasy about the catcher in the rye: he imagines childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play; adulthood, for the children of this world, is equivalent to death—a fatal fall over the edge of a cliff. His created understandings of childhood and adulthood allow Holden to cut himself off from the world by covering himself with a protective armor of cynicism. But as the book progresses, Holden’s experiences, particularly his encounters with Mr. Antolini and Phoebe, reveal the shallowness of his conceptions.

The Phoniness of the Adult World

“Phoniness,” which is probably the most famous phrase from The Catcher in the Rye, is one of Holden’s favorite concepts. It is his catch-all for describing the superficiality, hypocrisy, pretension, and shallowness that he encounters in the world around him. In Chapter 22, just before he reveals his fantasy of the catcher in the rye, Holden explains that adults are inevitably phonies, and, what’s worse, they can’t see their own phoniness. Phoniness, for Holden, stands as an emblem of everything that’s wrong in the world around him and provides an excuse for him to withdraw into his cynical isolation. Though oversimplified, Holden’s observations are not entirely inaccurate. Holden can be a highly insightful narrator, and he is very aware of superficial behavior in those around him. Throughout the novel he encounters many characters who do seem affected, pretentious, or superficial—Sally Hayes, Carl Luce, Maurice and Sunny, and even Mr. Spencer stand out as examples. Some characters, like Maurice and Sunny, are genuinely harmful.

However, although Holden expends so much energy searching for phoniness in others, he never directly observes his own phoniness. His deceptions are generally pointless and cruel and he notes that he is a compulsive liar. For example, on the train to New York, Holden perpetrates a mean-spirited and needless prank on Mrs. Morrow. He’d like us to believe that he is a paragon of virtue in a world of phoniness, but that simply isn’t the case. Although he’d like to believe that the world is a simple place, and that virtue and innocence rest on one side of the fence while superficiality and phoniness rest on the other, Holden is his own counterevidence. The world is not as simple as he’d like—and needs—it to be; even he cannot adhere to the same black-and-white standards with which he judges other people.

Religion

As with most other things in his life, Holden has ambivalent feelings about religion. Religion entices him because he thinks it may offer a spiritual anchor in an otherwise confusing and depressing world. Holden yearns for such an anchor throughout the novel. He frequently imagines that a relationship with a young woman may cure his loneliness, but female companionship never works out for him. As an alternative, Holden occasionally thinks about Jesus. Jesus appeals to Holden for a couple of reasons. First, Jesus is not a phony. Holden asserts as much when he exclaims that Jesus “would’ve puked” had he witnessed the commercialization of Christmas. Second, Jesus privileges social outcasts. Holden makes note of this when he recalls the story of Jesus curing a lunatic’s madness. Holden, who frequently calls himself a “madman,” imagines that Jesus could also cure him. However, despite Holden’s desire for spiritual grounding, organized religion repulses him. In Holden’s view, rituals, theology, and dogma are imposed from outside and therefore turn people into phonies. So even though Holden respects Jesus as a spiritual figure, he rejects the religion founded on his name.

Inaction

One of the biggest issues holding Holden back is his persistent inability to take action. Holden’s inaction indicates a failure both to let go of past trauma and to move toward a more resilient future. With regard to the past, Holden cannot relinquish the memory of his dead brother. Holden’s refusal to let go of Allie’s memory finds an echo in Chapter 5, when he can’t bring himself to let go of a snowball he’s made. Instead of throwing the snowball, he holds on to it and packs in more snow, making it hard and dense. The dense snowball may mirror Holden’s tight knot of emotional anguish, and his inability to let the snowball go echoes his inability to make peace with his brother’s death. The pain associated with Allie’s passing interferes with Holden’s ability to take action in other ways as well. Take, for example, the scene where Holden attempts to punch Stradlater with his right fist. Holden knows this fist is weak, because he injured it when he broke the windows in the garage after Allie died. Using this fist to throw a punch is therefore self-defeating and leads to Stradlater punching him.

Just as it relates to the pain of his past, Holden’s inaction also relates to his fear of the future. Frequently in the book Holden describes the world of adults as being full of rules and conventions that make people into phonies. But his constant criticism of adults covers up a deeper resistance to growing up. This resistance becomes clear in Holden’s failed attempts at sexual connection. Even though he frequently thinks and talks about sex, all of Holden’s encounters with women in the book are disastrous. Perhaps most telling is the scene with the prostitute Sunny. Holden cannot bring himself to have sex with her, just one of several failed sexual encounters he’s experienced. In a narrow sense, this episode shows Holden’s hang-ups about sexuality. More generally, it also shows how Holden’s inability to act links to his broader resistance to growing up. His refusal to grow up endangers his future ability to become more resilient and take action despite the world’s many shortcomings.

Appearances

Holden categorizes people in two groups: those who care about appearances and those who don’t. Those who belong to the first category strike Holden as “hotshots” and “phonies,” who privilege looks over personality. Holden feels surrounded by such people. He notes, for instance, that his mother works hard to cultivate her “terrific taste,” and his aunt has a penchant for pomp in her charity work. He also encounters a number of other wealthy and good-looking people over the course of the book, including Stradlater, Carl Luce, and Mr. Antolini. For Holden, Stradlater exemplifies the hollowness of appearances. Holden explains that even though Stradlater always looks good on the outside, he’s actually a “secret slob” whose stuff is dirty and in disarray. By contrast, Holden sees himself as someone who privileges substance over style. He insists, for instance, that he doesn’t care about his own appearance. At one point he exclaims, “I didn’t give a damn how I looked.” However, his self-consciousness about putting the flaps down on his hunting cap, for example, reveal that he, too, is secretly concerned with appearances.

Performance

Just as Holden sets up an opposition between style and substance, he also sets up an opposition between performance and authenticity. For Holden, performance is closely linked to notions of appearance and phoniness, and no one epitomizes the artificiality of performance better than professional actors. Holden dislikes actors mainly because they pretend to be other people. But he also takes issue with actors because their success is based on how well they show off their talent. Holden seems to believe that the more they show off their talent, the phonier they get. Acting therefore has a corrupting power. Holden seems to think that most people are actors of sorts, exaggerating who they are in order to please an imaginary audience. Such exaggeration leads to artificiality and the failure to be a “real” person. But if everything is a performance and hence inauthentic, then what does authenticity actually look like? Even though Holden privileges an idea of authenticity, he never explicitly defines it, which indicates he’s chasing after something that may not actually exist.

Perhaps surprisingly, given his criticism of performance, Holden cannot exempt himself from the charge of inauthenticity. This is evident as early as Chapter 4, when he gleefully proclaims his need to act out for attention: “All I need’s an audience. I’m an exhibitionist.” Whether tap dancing for Stradlater in the dorm bathroom, taking on the alter ego of Rudolph Schmidt on the train to New York, or trying to play it cool in city bars, Holden performs and exaggerates constantly. He even admits to exaggerating his own immaturity. As he notes in Chapter 2, “I act quite young for my age sometimes. I was sixteen then, and I’m seventeen now, and some times I act like I’m about thirteen.” Holden makes a similar performance during his encounter with Carl Luce, who comments on Holden’s persistent immaturity and repeatedly asks him, “When are you going to grow up?” Throughout The Catcher in the Rye, then, Holden is an actor in search of a sympathetic audience.